Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

September 6, 2006

Diesel Sweeties to United, Updated

The news that R. Stevens will take an iteration of Diesel Sweeties into newspapers through United Feature Syndicate beginning in January is interesting in a lot of ways.

imageFirst, it's a good choice. The strip is frequently funny, it has a distinctive look, and it's driven primarily by gags rather than by asking readers to track a series of relationships. This should make it easier for new audiences to understand the work coming right out of the gate, giving it a greater chance for success. Second, the initial announcement indicates that Stevens will continue to be able to post work on-line, which is interesting because syndicate contracts have at time not only extended to forbidding outside efforts with the same characters but to first rights of refusal to any unrelated strip-type work. Third, the announcement also indicates Stevens will keep control of at least a part of his existing merchandising, although webcartoonist Scott Kurtz rightfully wonders out loud how broad this part of the deal is and how much the syndicate will take in -- Kurtz notes that the standard when it comes to merchandising is a 50/50 split.

Unless someone can figure out a way to unpack it for me and change my mind, Stevens keeping the copyright seems to me a non-story. My understanding is that this is an option offered to cartoonists as a matter of course; the key isn't the copyright as much as the contractual agreements regarding control, direction and profit described above. Because syndicate contracts are so explicit on these issues, a cartoonist once described to me the issue of who gets the copyright as a coin-flip decision. The only thing I can guess is that depending on the contract means that Stevens would have an easier time putting the strip back on-line full-time were his agreement with UFS to dissolve.

An element I find interesting is the timing -- September to January is very little lead time for a strip, meaning UFS must have a lot of confidence in the cartoonist's ability to start working at a high productivity and quality level within syndicate content parameters. Getting the January slot doubles my estimate of their esteem. It also indicates to me that something in development may have been dropped, or, perhaps, strategic manuevering has begun in terms of what goes into the giant hole that opens up when Lynn Johnston's expected departure from some 2000 papers becomes a reality.

UPDATE: Okay, this makes even more sense -- Stevens is one of Ted Rall's picks. Rall has been openly recruiting younger-skewing features for United since joining their team in an official, corporate capacity in late June. As for the questions floated by Scott Kurtz, Stevens confirms that he'll be doing his own manufacturing still but can't license out to others; he also seems to have free reign to do other comics. I think the latter is significant.
posted 1:04 pm PST | Permalink

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